Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Les hautes solitudes

In keeping with the vast majority of the films of its writer/director, Philippe Garrel, Les hautes solitudes (1974) is an intensely personal experience. A film in which characters thrown together in empty rooms stung by silence drift between fleeting glances, reacting or not reacting as the case may be to what is said, what isn't said, and everything in-between. It is, as one might expect given its technical presentation, a fairly impenetrable work, though one that we're free to carry with us; ruminating on each tattered scene as we gather up our thoughts like raindrops, either during the experience of viewing or afterwards, and inevitably projecting our own thoughts and feelings (or personal preconceptions) onto the images, or its central characters, who remain vague and elusive; indistinguishable from the actors who play them and whose faces dominate each single-shot close-up composition, used throughout to establish a story - or a sense of narrative that exists between sleep and nothing - to reveal a sense of the great loneliness that the title of the film so perfectly describes.

Although the intentions of Les hautes solitudes remain unclear, obscured by the closeness of the compositions or the complete lack of any kind of conventional soundtrack to make explicit those stolen moments of thought, we can at least take the film to be a kind of silent-study of its three individual characters; the actresses Jean Seberg and Tina Aumont, and the singer and musician Nico, whose decade-long relationship with Garrel has become a spectre that haunts the very framework of his cinema, stretching as far back as her earliest appearance in the abstract, esoteric drama The Inner Scar (La cicatrice intérieure, 1972), to the recollections of her spirit and the void left in her absence in films like Emergency Kisses (Les baisers de secours, 1989) or I Don't Hear the Guitar Any More (J'entends plus la guitar, 1991).

In Les hautes solitudes, it is Nico's face that we see first, slumped in a kind of morose contemplation as the images flicker with a Murnau-like intensity, as the antique quality of the composition reminds us, subconsciously, of the world of Faust (1926) or Nosferatu (1922); suggesting that feeling of the supernatural, gothic and severe, or of a nocturnal underworld devoid of time and place. As was the case with Garrel's earlier silent film, Le révélateur (1968), there is that sense of a world in which life has stopped dead; where we witness these characters interacting, thinking - the expressions on their faces telling a story in the loosest possible sense - but they, like us, are still waiting; waiting for something (anything) to happen. Good or bad, we don't quite know, but there is a continual feeling that the world around them has fallen away, leaving only the four-walls, floors and ceilings of the apartment, the empty street bellow and those other spaces, rubble and mirrors, that seem to be beyond our basic comprehension.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

Nosferatu directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922:

Le révélateur directed by Philippe Garrel, 1968:

In this sense, the film becomes a sort of ghost story in which the inability of one character to relate to another character is conveyed through the intensity of those exhausting compositions of actors attempting to express thoughts and emotions - or the basic human need to a feel a part of something meaningful or substantial - but silenced, literally, by Garrel's particular filmmaking approach. By removing the soundtrack completely, so that not even a musical score or a drone of ambient white-noise can block out our own thoughts (either on the subject of the film, or our thoughts in general), Garrel makes the breakdown in communication between his four central characters - the three women and the actor Laurent Terzieff - all the more palpable; as lips move and the eyes dart back and forth from one side of the frame to another in a parody of conversation while the scene remains silent. The words literally cannot express the complexity of the emotions felt or experienced by these four lead protagonists, just as they fail to fully express our own relationship with them or with the film in question.

We never know if these actors are playing characters, or instead playing themselves, or even if their relationships extend beyond the actual beginning and end of the drama. Such questions remain on our mind throughout the film, as we watch these dramas play-out in bedrooms and kitchens, filled with looks and smiles which could be genuine - as in developing naturally from the drama and the interactions of the characters - or could be a cheat, as in those stolen moments, taken between takes and continuing the often Brechtian, deconstructive aspect that Garrel employs throughout. The accumulative effect of these images is eventually closer to the avant-garde of Stan Brakhage than the cinema of Vigo or Jean Eusrache, as the film becomes an installation piece, just there, in front of us, but beyond a reasonable grasp.

It is an impossible film to really pin-down and explain what is what without the benefit of further reading; with each reaction or spontaneous smile following a scene of full-face emotion disarming us, throwing our interpretations into confusion, leading to greater questions, thoughts and misunderstandings, etcetera. At certain points it seems like a depressing film, as Seberg, still beautiful, but quite clearly a world-away from the lively young girl of Bonjour Tristesse (1958) or À bout de souffle (1960), breaks down in tears and is comforted by Aumont, who reminds us of what a great and expressive actress she was away from the dull exploitation of films like Torso (I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale/Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973) or The Howl (L'urlo, 1970). However, at other times the mood is playful, as we sense some of the fun and the frivolity of this collective of likeminded individuals, friends and collaborators, producing a film, a personal and to some extents private work (as Garrel's work often seems to be), in the solitude of a rented apartment building.

Despite such moments, which could very easily be another example of Garrel's deconstruction of the film, allowing shots to run further than the moment of the cut - or the way in which the whole thing becomes about the process of filmmaking itself - it is the gloom and the inability of the characters to communicate that we eventually come back to. A haunted film in many respects, in which characters are introduced, either slumbering or on the precipice of sleep (Nico and Seberg) or instead gazing into windows or pools of mirrored reflections (Aumont and Terzieff); or where the high-contrast black and white and the fragmented framing of images, as half-lit faces, hands and arms, expressions hidden, either by the characters themselves or by the doorways that get in the way of the action as we intrude, silently, upon the scene, becomes yet another barrier.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

Beyond this, we're left with Seberg's face, which dominates the film, full of expression, even if the ability to plainly express in words seems to be beyond her. The fact that Seberg would be dead by the end of the decade, just three months shy of her 41st birthday, gives the film an added sense of tragedy that may not have been the intention. And when we take into consideration the early deaths of Nico (1938-1988) and Aumont (1946-2006), the idea of a ghost story, or a haunted film, becomes all the more concrete. Such ideas become manifest when combined with the cinematography, the sparseness of the locations and the feeling that time has become a mere affectation. From the first appearance of Seberg seven-minutes into the film, tossing and turning in bed and appearing to eventually fall asleep (in real-time) before a fade to black implies the passage between night and day, the narrative seems suspended, as moments pass, but with no real urgency, nothing to move along to besides the same old rooms and faces.

As a study for Serberg, or of Seberg, the film is absolutely riveting, as we watch with complete fascination the bombardment of emotions, or facial expressions, of acting at its most naked and unrefined, being projected as Garrel cuts in and out of these blurred relationships, where each look to the camera, beyond the camera, to the empty spaces that mock us with their vacant austerity, reminding us of the windows where life should be. Can we take hope from that penultimate shot, which lasts for several minutes and shows Seberg, bathed in glowing light and buried beneath an attractive sunhat, as she coyly expresses a range of conflicted facial expressions as if putting on an audition (for Garrel, and by extension the audience), or is the hope destroyed by the final plunging retreat into backlit melancholia? A silhouetted pose, cigarette smoke and "Les hautes solitudes", as Seberg returns to the darkness, away from the bright white light that filters in through the bedroom window; away from the fantasy ideal of what could have been, or should have been, if only things had been different.

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

The End... by Nico, 1974:

Les hautes solitudes directed by Philippe Garrel, 1974:

It is that particular presentation of characters in a state of trance, fearfully in danger, which makes it impossible not to be reminded of Nico's music; with the mood and tone reflecting songs like 'Innocent and Vain' or 'Frozen Warnings', or the lyrical reflections of 'Afraid'; as her voice, an aching monotone, reassures us, but also hold the mirror to the heartbreaking line "you are beautiful and you are alone." Such associations are impossible to ignore given the intensity of these two individuals and their relationship, which dominated a period of creativity that resulted in the conception of great music and great cinema (and the spaces between the two). Let's not forget that a colour-tinted still of the film even featured on the cover of Nico's album The End (1973), or that Garrel originally intended to use segments of Nico's music as a soundtrack to the film, before Seberg suggested that the images remain silent.

As the film ends we're left with as many questions as when it began; basic questions, like who are these people and what do they want? What were the intentions of the filmmaker? What role does the supposed influence of Nietzsche's The Antichrist (first published, 1888) have on the world of the film or the development of its narrative? ...And so on. The only thing we're really sure of is Seberg's brilliance and Garrel's genius, creating a film that is entirely dependent on the interpretations of the audience, as we project our own thoughts and feelings in an attempt to understand these characters and their complex interrelationships. In introducing his own work, Nietzsche wrote that "In order to understand the book, one must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion." "Let us look one another in the face." These words, which resonate on a monumental level when watching the reactions of these three no-longer-with us cult-icons, could just as easily be the introduction to Garrel's intensely personal film.